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Spring 2005
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A Service for the Show's Viewers Built on GIS

Canadian TV Documentary Producer Provides Web Site to Locate Shipwrecks

By Victoria Castle, Shipwreck Central

  click to enlarge
Shipwreck Central map shown at full size.

The Eco-Nova Media Group is a producer of television documentaries. From its headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, it has become the largest producer of underwater documentaries in Canada. Its most popular series, The Sea Hunters, airs in 172 countries on National Geographic International and History Television.

This team of documentary filmmakers, divers, and underwater archaeologists travels the globe in search of the world's lost ships. From the waters off Qeqertarsuaq, Greenland, to the Straits of Magellan, the team searches the oceans to bring never-before-seen footage to its ardent viewers while protecting and preserving these relics of the world's maritime past.

However, as seasons of The Sea Hunters unfolded, producer John Davis wanted more for the show's vast audience. He saw viewers forming a community with an interest in shipwrecks but with no central voice. He decided it would be up to Eco-Nova to give them that voice. Since the show has no direct contact with the audience, it was determined that the logical place for the community to unite was on the Web. Davis envisioned a site called Shipwreck Central where people could not only be more involved with The Sea Hunters but could also discuss the shipwrecks they felt passionate about. He imagined an interactive map with which members of the entire community could, on their own, explore the shipwrecks of the world. In fact, it would be more than that; viewers would be able to add shipwrecks to the map on their own.

Coincidentally, one of the consultants for the show was the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Canada's largest center for ocean research, which is located on the shores of Bedford Basin in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. At the institute, Phil Sceviour, Eco-Nova chief financial officer, and other show staff became acquainted with GIS technology and Esri software. They soon realized that the mapping technology the Shipwreck Central development team needed for its Web site already existed.

Mike Fletcher
Mike Fletcher on the SMS Dresden checks his equipment as he prepares to dive into the Pacific Ocean off Chile. (Photo Images © Open Road Productions)

They then went to Esri Canada Limited (Atlantic Region) to discuss options for smart solutions to their mapping needs. The team explained that they already had an existing PHP/mySQL database that contained information regarding each shipwreck, including latitude and longitude coordinates. The goal for Shipwreck Central was to use this information to display the wrecks on the map and have a profile on each wreck accessible at that point.

From the initial meeting with Esri Canada in March 2004, development efforts began in earnest. ArcIMS software's open, documented Servlet Connector, running in conjunction with Apache Software Foundation's Tomcat Servlet Container, proved to be the gateway. PHP included libraries that made it easy for Tomcat to work with ArcXML, ArcIMS software's XML-based request/response language.

ArcIMS provided a wide array of options pertaining to the display information on the map, making it both user friendly and accessible. An important feature the Shipwreck Central team required was the ability to zoom in continually on a shipwreck; it didn't want the zoom set with a predetermined number of stages. Using a map based on both vector and satellite images, the team used ArcIMS to give users a series of tools to navigate the map, including a zoom tool, allowing them to pinpoint any spot and to view it at any distance.

Shipwreck Central was designed with broadband users in mind. The Sea Hunters team wanted to make its library of underwater footage accessible to its viewers, and the interactive Web map would be the portal to it all. Along with information on each vessel (name, measurements, history, and cause of sinking), users could also view images and video of the wreck, when available. All of this information, including video and images, is accessible via the map. Two icons were developed to make the map accessible: a yellow circle would represent shipwrecks, and shipwrecks with accompanying video would be represented by a "diver down" icon. This greatly increased usability by letting users delineate information at a glance.

  the Sea Hunters arrive by Zodiac
The Sea Hunters team arrive by Zodiac on location in Chile (Photo Images © Open Road Productions).

Most important, the map was configured so that after new shipwreck data was entered into the database, a member from the Shipwreck Central team could quickly and easily update the map using ArcView.

When asked about the differences between this project and other ArcIMS projects that he'd been involved in, Cameron Fraser, Shipwreck Central's Web developer, says, "Shipwreck Central is a companion to a television show, and we wanted to make sure it was up to the same standard as the show. There were no compromises in the look and feel of the site; the last thing we wanted was for people to perceive any part of it as cheap or half-baked. So we wanted every aspect to be as smooth and friendly as we could make it. We also wanted it to be usable in as many browsers as we could, on both Windows and Mac OS X, so we ended up targeting Internet Explorer, Mozilla/Firefox, Netscape, and Safari. To make such a dynamic site is a challenge in itself, but to make it behave identically on all of those different browsers leaves me with a great sense of accomplishment."

Since its launching in July 2004, Shipwreck Central has had no trouble finding the audience Davis knew was there. It has been named Site of the Day by both Netscape and USA TODAY, both noting the impressive map. Davis says, "With global mapping as our frame of reference and the Internet to create powerful new connections, my small company can now reach consumers directly and influence markets and decision makers around the world."

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